Updated: May 3
By Marco Imperiale.
One of the elements that I found intriguing about law firms is that most of their websites and brochures (whether paper ones or – because of new sustainability policies – digital ones) focus mainly on three elements: i) top-notch advice ii) tailor-made services iii) client involvement.
I believe that this is relevant from at least two perspectives: i) if everyone offers the same product, how can a law firm differentiate itself? ii) lawyers believe they know their clients, even if most of them are not used to topics like structured feedback, customer journeys, or surveys. Someone would also question the top-notch advice, but that is not my point.
What I would like to focus on, instead, is that this approach is going to change quite soon, because of the following drivers.
The first driver: values
It is very interesting to see the evolution of business pitches in the last few years. Some years ago, we were asked about track records in similar activities, fees, and possible conflicts. Now the questions we are asked are different. What are your strategies to retain young professionals? What kind of policies do you have regarding inclusion? What do you do for the environment daily?
I believe that this change of direction is quite significant. If some years ago a lawyer was chosen for her competence, now the competence is somehow granted, and we want someone who shares our values. More than this, retention, diversity and environmental policies are considered elements that affect our work, and therefore our services. On the one hand, this is a tough challenge. On the other one, it is a great opportunity to strengthen our identity as a firm.
Defining our values is not as easy as imaginable. Different partners could have different ideas about the firm's driving principles or the management of complex ethical issues. And even the history of the firm we work for can be at the same time a blessing and a curse.
Having coordinated the creation of LCA's first social report, which will be published in June, this resonates a lot with me. Because of the lack of a common framework for social reporting (and especially for social reporting in the law firm scenario), we had the opportunity of delivering something unique, so we decided to rethink ourselves from an "innovability" perspective. Firstly, we started a think tank to decide what sustainability meant for us and how to frame the single topics. Later, together we wrote the index and started the drafting process with the respective departments. We wanted to differentiate ourselves from our competitors, but in a meaningful – not comparative - way. Finally, we took some time to reflect on the outcome and decided to make it an annual release. The path to awareness, indeed, is dynamic, not static.
After its conclusion, we noticed three positive elements. Firstly, we were providing our clients an opportunity to delve into what we are doing in each area, allowing them to know more about the aspects that they feel are relevant. Secondly, we were making professionals and business services more aware of all our efforts in the sustainability scenario. Last but not least, we were cementing ourselves along with the values we stand for. The result? We had another proof that sustainability, intended in its broader meaning, is an endless challenge. The more we do as a firm, the more we know how much we have to do.
The second driver: transparency
Law firms are not renowned to be transparent. In some countries, they don't publish revenues or PeP (profit per equity partner). Sometimes they don't reveal associates' salaries, or they are very secretive about their governance or IT structures.
While a client typically knows a lot about our services, she does not know about the provider. Someone could say that this is irrelevant (I am hiring a lawyer because of her skills, not because of the dynamics of the law firm she's working for), but – at the same time – we are seeing in the corporate world an identification between the service and the providers. Companies are sharing social and integrated reports, communication towards clients/users/consumers is always more personal, and we – as consumers and citizens - are way more interested in processes than a few years ago. The rise of blockchain, the spread use of algorithms, and the new strategies of data governance will only enhance this phenomenon.
What the market is showing us is that a law firm that does not work efficiently and does not care about its professionals will not be able to offer the best possible services. For this reason, if once trust towards a lawyer was the result of a personal relationship between a partner and a general counsel, or the consequence of long-standing, 360 degrees, agreements between a firm and a company, now it relies more and more on processes and people. What are your policies regarding young professionals and diversity? How can I be sure that your best lawyers are staffed on my deal? How do you determine the pricing of a specific transaction? The fact that most in-house counsels have law firm backgrounds influences this process as well. They know the pain points of law firms, and they use it to their advantage.
That said, how can we promote transparency in a law firm scenario?
First, we can invest in accountability. And accountability means empowering professionals and business services for every single action, even the smallest ones. However, it means also catching potential bottlenecks, investing in contract lifecycle management, and involving project managers and engineers in law firms' strategies (not surprisingly, these kinds of figures are quite in-demand from a market perspective). I would also suggest the promotion and the release of specific action items within a defined timeline, but taking into account that they will be surely checked by clients and competitors. If a law firm commits to a diversity quota or a zero-travel policy within 2023, someone will check what has been done.
Second, we can become more data-driven. If once trust was earned through long networking sessions, personal interactions, and endless chats with a general counsel or a CEO, now it is always more based on quantifiable and trackable elements. Sometimes, the general counsels and the CEOs are the ones asking for them. Sometimes, it's a company decision. Can I see your cybersecurity and environmental certifications? How are you treating my data? What are your efforts in terms of fossil fuel reduction? The investment in KPIs/ROIs, once an optional, is becoming a necessity, whether we like it or not.
Thirdly, we can choose to be more empathetic, both as professionals and as law firms. As lawyers, we tend to be ego-driven. We don't share stories of loss, young professionals who left for competitors, or burnouts.
Our track records and submissions only consider the best clients' stories, and the quotes we share are carefully selected. On the first layer, this is reasonable, and the clients consider it acceptable. But as soon as we break the layer, we notice that no one is a superhero and that each of us is human. Assuming that empathy and competence are related (someone would disagree with me on this point), bringing a human touch to the legal profession becomes a very impactful goal. A partner of the firm I work for uses to say that it is better to have as a colleague a good professional who is an exceptional human being than an exceptional professional who is a bad human being. I would go forward. The best professionals, soon, will be those who have invested in themselves to become extraordinary human beings.
Involving the client in (the third driver)
The lesson that companies like Amazon, Uber, and Netflix are teaching us is that we will always be more inclined to customer-centric products and services. The more we shift our mindset towards the concept of "product", the more we will be able to be in line with clients' requests. The same client who eats at home with Deliveroo, travels with Airbnb, and entertains her family with Disney Plus, is expecting the same kind of care for us. What kind of lesson can we learn? Simple answer: client first. Not only in terms of services, but also in terms of knowledge. The companies who offer the best services are the ones who know us better than their competitors.
As lawyers, we tend to see clients in a passive role. It's part of the deal. When we deal with complex issues, we involve them as sources of relevant information. In litigation, we consider the key players for a successful strategy. But this is a different form of involvement. It is a process of co-creation with them. It is delineating a space that did not exist before, the one of interaction, where we collaborate with our clients not just as service providers, but as peers. The convergence and divergence process involves a leap of faith, and there are certainly downsides, but in my experience, the positive aspects are way more relevant than the cons.
So, how can we bring the client in?
I would suggest three simple actions. The first one would be listening sessions. Long sessions, not billed, where we listen to what clients have to say about our service. No products to sell, no networking focus, just pure and simple listening. It is surprising how much we can learn from staying silent for a while, and how many simple actions can be so effective.
The second one would be doing something together. It could be the constitution of an association. Or a charity initiative. Sports activities can be good as well. As imaginable, the risk of crossing the networking line is tangible, but our focus should be on knowing the client much more than before. The more we will be able to know her, the better the service will be. At the end of the day, we aspire to be not only service providers but trustable professionals. And trustable professionals are not the ones who know about the law, but the ones who you would ask for suggestions regarding children, travels, or tough personal decisions. As a wise partner told me once, the way you do anything is the way you do everything.
The third one would be the use of surveys and structured feedback. For this kind of activity, I would suggest the involvement of professionals with a design-thinking or a marketing background. The focus of this process is not on learning the things we want to hear, but on the ‘bad ones’. The ones that come only with anonymized forms. The ones we are not expecting. The more the data, and the more the details provided, the better we will have done our job (and the better the possibilities of improving our services/products).
Of course, different departments will face the collaboration challenge in a different ways. If I think about the firm I work for, practices like litigation, white-collar crimes, and corporate have very different approaches, methods, and players. But I still believe that – on both the sides of the river – there are humans, with their emotions, their fears, and their struggles. When I think about the client, I think about someone who is asking for support not only from a professional perspective but from a personal one. And the more I will be able to intercept the human, the more I will be considered as a journey companion, and not just as a service – or product - provider.
I frequently stress that this is an exciting moment to be a lawyer. The offer is expanding, the demand is rising, and the exponential innovation is certainly providing several challenging legal issues to solve. On the other hand, the revolution we are experiencing brings with it a relevant amount of difficulty, because the role of the lawyer – as we know it – is quickly changing, both in terms of actions and perceptions.
In a recent conference, I had the pleasure of attending, a managing partner asked another managing partner: "What keeps you awake at night?" I won't reveal her answer, but I can share the one that was rambling in my mind when I made myself the same question. The fear of not being able to ride properly the wave of the changing scenario.
The changing scenario in our profession brings evolving paradigms. And the wind of change will benefit only those who are capable of building the windmills. However, the more we will be able to use these drivers to our advantage, the more we will impact our clients, and society in general, in a relevant way. Not a bad deal, after all.
About the Author
Marco is a lawyer and the Head of Innovation at LCA, a leading Italian firm. He has extensive experience in legal design, legal tech, and in the interplay of copyright law and the entertainment industry.
Whenever he finds time, he also works as mediator, teaching fellow for Harvard Law School (CopyrightX course), and mindfulness trainer.
He is a frequent public speaker and the author, together with Barbara de Muro, of the first Italian book on legal design.